On 8 March, International Women's Day, thousands of women activists across the US took part in a historic day of internationalist and anti-capitalist feminist action. Tithi Bhattacharya, one of the organisers of the Women's Strike, spoke to Anne Alexander about how, and who, they mobilised.
How did the 8 March mobilisation begin?
We were inspired by the diverse, militant and often spontaneous movements that arose in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration. These include, among others: the airport protests against the first Muslim ban; a taxi strike of over 18,000 drivers and a strike of nearly 1,000 Yemeni bodega owners in New York City in support of the airport protests; a “day without an immigrant” strike in Milwaukee and 12 other Wisconsin cities, where Voces de la Frontera Workers’ Center led protests across the state; ongoing neighbourhood self-defence organising against ICE [immigration] raids, and of course the splendid women’s march of 21 January.
There was already an international call for a women’s strike on 8 March, in part spurred by the mass mobilisation of women in Poland and Argentina. Women from over 50 countries were planning a day of action for International Women’s Day, which was a stunning display of international coordination and political organising.
In the US, against the backdrop of protests in January, we thought the time was right for an internationalist and anti-capitalist feminist day of action. So we decided to stand in solidarity with the international call for a women’s strike.
One of the main slogans of 8 March was “Feminism of the 99 percent”. Can you explain why you chose this focus?
The misogyny of Trump and his proposed regime was clear from the day he launched his electoral campaign. But for those of us organising for 8 March, it was important to state that opposition to Trump was fundamental and necessary — but not enough. This is because throughout the dismal electoral campaign the solution proposed by the US ruling class to violent Trumpism was Hillary Clinton.
For several decades now the discussion of women’s rights in the US was tethered to the question of how successful a minority of women can be within capitalism, rather than the question of emancipation for the vast majority of women. Instead of understanding women’s liberation as part of a general liberation of the working class as a whole, this brand of feminism came to be about shattering the glass ceiling of the corporate and political world for the likes of top executive Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton.
This is why we said that we were not just against Trump, but also against the conditions that produced Trump: the decades of neoliberalism that have created a violent landscape of poverty, inequality, racism and sexism for the vast majority and the most vulnerable. Hence our slogan of feminism of the 99 percent.
Since class was so central to our understanding of how we wanted to organise for 8 March, the issue of women’s work was very important. We wanted to make it clear that capitalism benefited not only from the work women performed in the formal economy as waged workers, but also from the unwaged labour of women in the sphere of social reproduction. An important task was to show the unity between the two spheres of labour and point to the potential of political organising in both.
We also wanted to reintroduce the socialist history of 8 March into public discourse. This meant not simply recovering the memory of working class organising, but also to remind ourselves that in many ways the situation of working class women, of women of colour and immigrant women today echoes the condition of women in the early years of the 20th century. Then the majority of women were not in unions, which were often corrupt and/or racist, and bosses used violent methods to keep wages down and the workforce compliant. Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, women organised themselves into unions and led militant strikes for both economic and political rights. If it could have been done then, there was no reason for it to not be repeated now!
Union density today is at a historic low in the US. But because there is a low level of struggle at the point of production, this does not mean that there is no class struggle. We argued that anti-racist struggles such as Black Lives Matter, or struggle for land and sovereignty such as by Indigenous communities at Standing Rock, all represented various instances of struggle by the working class and the oppressed, and that women played leading roles in these movements.
8 March both stood in the tradition of these struggles and also tried to extend and coalesce their logic into a specific anti-capitalist project.
How were the actions on 8 March organised and coordinated?
We had a national committee of 15 women activists from various kinds of political and organisational backgrounds, including immigrant groups, socialists and feminists. However, we said there should be absolute autonomy for local committees so long as they agreed with our national platform, six fundamental principles stating our call for an end to gender violence, reproductive justice for all, labour rights, a welfare system providing universal healthcare, education and access to benefits, anti-racist and anti-imperialist feminism and environmental justice for all. We knew that the issues which affected women in different states and localities would be specific, however, and we wanted local groups to adapt the situation in their city or town. For example, they could target a workplace known for its misogyny or sexist advertising.
Organising committees appeared first in the larger cities, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco. There were also many university campuses and university towns involved. However, once organising took off in these venues, people from smaller towns and cities started writing to us, many of whom had never organised a political meeting.
It was a wonderful experience to write back with some ideas and connect them to local branches of socialist organisations and feminist groups. We had over 40 locations taking some kind of action on 8 March — all the way from Alaska to Hawaii. It was unexpected and wonderful that the initiative could have such national resonance.
How does this reflect the national picture of the mobilisations against Trump?
The Women’s Strike certainly became a national mobilisation because of the moment we are in right now. We have an opportunity to build national resistance to Trump and to create a left wing current within that generalised movement.
This context was certainly why people felt empowered to take action at this particular moment. It was one of the very few protests in recent times which had a clearly radical platform, one of the first in the 20 years I have followed US politics to put Palestine and anti-imperialism as the beating heart of the movement.
Were men invited to take part or show solidarity?
We took a very conscious decision at the start to invite men to be part of organising 8 March. We asked them to take part in both active ways and in supportive ways. So workplaces are obviously multi-gendered, and it was important for people to take action together. For example, in Philadelphia women and men organised “informational pickets” before work, giving out leaflets about issues such as childcare, wage discrimination and reproductive rights. We also made the point that men could do childcare and the housework so women could take part. People got very creative. The university town in Indiana where I live voted largely for Trump. Nevertheless we had an organising group for the strike which composed a letter that women could give their husbands or partners saying, “Honey, you can do the dishes, I’m going on the demonstration.” We put this on our national website.
Was 8 March a success?
I think 8 March was a resounding success, if not in absolute numbers but in its ability to change the debate about feminism. The mobilisation showed a new awareness of the necessity to rebuild solidarity and collective action as the only ways of defence. We were successful in emphasising the united nature of our oppression and exploitation and hence pointing out that the solution to them must also be a united resistance. We showed that the continuous attacks against our bodies, freedom, and self-determination were connected with and fuelled by imperialist and neoliberal policies. For instance, the struggle against police violence or for abortion was actually immediately relevant to whether the state invested money in building schools in the South Side of Chicago, gave funds to Planned Parenthood (whose abortion services are used in the main by women of colour and poor women) or gave $3.8 billion to Israel to kill and intimidate our Palestinian sisters and brothers.
At least three public school districts closed down for 8 March: district officials were forced to close schools in Alexandria City in Virginia, Prince George’s County in Maryland, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district in North Carolina.
Some of the biggest mobilisations were in cities such as New York with 7,000 people in Washington Square Park and then later marching through protest landmarks of the city such as Stonewall Pub [the site of a riot against police repression of LGBT+ people 1969] and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory [where in 1911 a fire killed 146 workers, mostly women, spurring the growth of trade union action for health and safety standards]. In Chicago union members, Palestine rights activists and Black Lives Matter activists gathered at the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s hall at an evening rally. Immigrant groups, Muslim groups, trans rights activists and sex workers played central roles in much of the organising.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) was a central organiser of 8 March in the city, but there was not time to get the union’s formal endorsement, simply because this would have to be agreed by the delegate assembly which was only due to meet on 8 March. But many unions have a social justice caucus, and those kind of rank and file groups came out and endorsed. The New York Nurses’ Union was central to the mobilisation.
One speaker at the New York rally was a trans woman, and an organiser of the successful union drive and strike at the Babeland sex-toy shop to get union rights at the women-owned company. She said, “I am against boss feminism.” Her women bosses are all very “social justice” oriented, but when workers demanded better wages, they said “Nothing doing”. It was not until the workers went on strike that they started to listen. Her experience embodied what we wanted to say about “feminism for the 99 percent”.
What are the next steps after 8 March?
While I can say with some confidence that this is certainly the beginning of a new women’s movement in the US, I do want to underscore the enormity of the tasks ahead. We need organisational infrastructure, a process of political cohering of the resistance and democratic spaces to discuss both. We strongly believe that the best way to work out such political questions is through concrete organising. May Day is a perfect opportunity to do that, as it will be a day of strike action where activists in workplaces will raise the question of immigrant rights.
In Los Angeles 8 March had a very immigrant colour to begin with so those groups will work with unions to build for May Day and Chicago will be similar. In New York City several currents are involved, and Black Lives Matter has issued a call for participation. We see the role of our committee to work as a bridge building unified actions. It is impossible to predict how big it will be, but I think the momentum is still very much there, driven by the immigration raids which are taking place. We are seeing, for example, people setting up rapid response networks in their neighbourhoods to fight fascists and immigration raids. White supremacist groups with Nazi symbols and regalia are popping up all over the place. They don’t yet have the coherence of organised Nazi movements but that is why it is crucial to resist them now.
What has been the role of the revolutionary left in the mobilisation for 8 March?
Several far left organisations endorsed 8 March, including the International Socialist Organisation, the Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative. The DSA has more than tripled its membership to over 20,000 in the last year, building on the momentum of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. This is the largest socialist current to emerge in the US for decades and we on the revolutionary left should think about concrete ways we can work together with the DSA in united front initiatives. However, this is in a context where the revolutionary left is very weak, and the same could be said for the feminist movement, which over the last few decades of neoliberalism has been deracinated and defanged.
I would argue that the revolutionary left both in the US and internationally is often much better at dealing with questions of women’s liberation in practice than in theory. We have a track record of effective organising around abortion rights for example, defending Planned Parenthood clinics from demonstrations by anti-abortion activists. On the ground, the revolutionary left has done an amazing job to link women’s rights with the liberation of humanity. We should also recognise however, that we are seeing the global phenomenon of the rise of a wave of agitation by young women activists around issues such as rape and sexual harassment, and that the revolutionary left should play an important role both in shaping that women’s movement and playing a role of solidarity as it develops.
Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of South Asian History and the Director of Global Studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. She writes extensively on Marxist theory, gender, and the politics of Islamophobia. She is on the editorial boards of Studies on Asia and the International Socialist Review and is a member of the International Socialist Organisation in the US. Along with others, Tithi founded International Women’s Strike USA, which put out the call for 8 March: womenstrikeus.org